(CN) — A new, potentially explosive geopolitical dimension is being added to the puzzle that is the Middle East: A push by Israel, Europe, Egypt, Turkey and even the United States to drill for fossil fuels in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
In recent years, large reservoirs of natural gas have been discovered under the seafloor of the Mediterranean and now nations and energy companies are jostling to exploit these gas deposits despite the dangerous environmental and geopolitical consequences.
A push to drill off the coasts of Cyprus and Israel has accelerated in recent months after major deals between European Union nations, the U.S. and Israel were reached and set in motion drilling operations, pipeline projects and even military support for the gas exploitation.
“It’s like a gold mine or a gold rush what’s going on here,” Ya’ara Peretz, a campaigner with Green Course, an Israeli environmental group opposed to the gas developments, said in a telephone interview with Courthouse News from Tel Aviv.
This gold rush, though, is taking place in one of the world’s most disputed seas with a long history of skirmishes over islands, sea battles, piracy and war.
“If you think of it, the countries in the neighborhood have many differences,” said Constantinos Hadjistassou, an oil and gas expert at the engineering department of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus. “Think of Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Cyprus; think of Turkey and Greece; Turkey and Egypt. There is a lot of friction between the countries.”
Gas under the seafloor of the eastern Mediterranean was first discovered in the 1970s by Egypt, Hadjistassou said. But they were small discoveries close to Egypt’s shores. Then Israel found offshore gas reservoirs in the 1990s and early 2000s, prompting prospectors to search for more. By 2009, large pockets of gas were found in an Israeli offshore gas field named Tamar. More major discoveries followed: the Aphrodite field near Cyprus; the Leviathan in Israeli waters; and in 2015, a supergiant field in Egyptian waters called Zohr.
In all, researchers say this eastern Mediterranean area, known as the Levantine basin, has proven reserves of more than 60 trillion cubic feet of gas. However, the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that as much as 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil lie in the basin. That amount of gas is equivalent to about 76 years of gas consumption in the European Union.
That is a lot of gas, but activity in the eastern Mediterranean for now is quite modest compared to the world’s busiest offshore fields, such as those in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, the Persian Gulf and offshore Brazil where hundreds of drilling rigs are busy sucking up oil and gas from thousands of wells. In the eastern Mediterranean, only about 50 wells have been dug so far in its ultradeep waters, Hadjistassou said. The drilling is done mostly by semi-submersible rigs with gas now flowing by pipelines to Egypt and Israel.
In this gas frenzy, Turkey has become the disruptive player. It has good reasons to want to act as a spoiler: It fears being cut out of a lucrative new gas horizon at its front door.
Despite its 5,000 miles of Mediterranean coast, Turkey’s maritime claims are hemmed in by numerous Greek islands that abut right up to Turkey; also, its maritime boundaries are restricted by the large island of Cyprus 45 miles off the Turkish coast.
To counter being bottled in and potentially losing roughly half of its maritime territory, last November Turkey signed an agreement with the United Nations-backed government in war-torn Libya staking out maritime rights over a large swath of sea between the two countries. But their claims include the offshore waters of Crete and those of numerous Greek islands lying close to Turkey’s shores. The deal also serves Turkey’s military purposes because it is backing the Islamist-dominated government in Tripoli in that country’s civil war.
Turkey’s move was seen as an illegal attempt to both open up the Mediterranean for its own drilling and military operations and a way to block a prospective pipeline being built between Cyprus and Greece, a project backed by the EU, the U.S. and Israel and known as the EastMed pipeline.
With Turkey importing about 98% of its gas and more than 90% of its petroleum, it is eager to tap the reserves in the Mediterranean and deter others from exploiting gas it professes to own.
“This has unleashed a domino effect,” Hadjistassou said about Turkey’s refusal to recognize the territorial claims of Greece and Cyprus. “Turkey is refusing to follow and this is going to heat up the neighborhood even more.”
The territorial claims of Greece and Cyprus are backed by international law under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But Turkey is not a signatory to the convention so even if Turkey’s latest actions were found illegal by an international maritime tribunal, Turkey likely would ignore rulings against it. Cyprus and Greece have not brought a case against Turkey before the tribunal overseeing the Law of the Sea.
Alex G. Oude Elferink, the director of the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea, said in an email that Turkey’s claims over waters around large Mediterranean islands like Crete, Cyprus and Rhodes have “no sound legal arguments” because those islands, due to their size, have extensive rights to the offshore waters around them.
Tensions between Turkey and Europe are flaring up dramatically after Turkey earlier this month sent a gas exploration vessel, the Oruc Reis, accompanied by Turkish military vessels, into the waters off the coast of Kastellorizo, a Greek island that sits only 2 miles from Turkey’s southern shore.
Angrily, Greece told Turkey to stay away from its waters and even threatened to fire upon Turkish vessels. Then in a brazen move against a fellow NATO member, French President Emmanuel Macron sent a French naval frigate and two fighter jets to deter further Turkish gas activity in the disputed Mediterranean waters. The EU is now talking about slapping sanctions on Turkey over the dispute.
Elferink said Turkey’s claims to waters near Kastellorizo, the small island close to Turkey’s shores, may be “justified under international law” because the island “would receive limited weight in a delimitation between Turkey and Greece.”
Still, he said Turkey’s attempt to explore for gas around the island is likely in violation of international law because there’s no agreement between the two countries that settles the overlapping claims. Until such an agreement is reached, he said, Turkey’s incursions are likely a violation of the convention. He added that even though Turkey has not signed the Law of the Sea Convention, it should respect the treaty and its clauses spelling out maritime boundaries because it is “customary international law” and therefore in principle binding on Turkey.
Another dispute has been simmering hot for even longer: Turkey is angering many in Europe by pushing ahead with drilling operations off the waters of Cyprus, an island nation that is part of the EU but where a northeastern chunk of the island is controlled by Turkey. The island has been consumed by a long-running conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and this territorial dispute is now being extended into the Mediterranean as both sides claim rights to the riches under the seafloor off the island’s shores.
Many in Europe see Turkey’s actions as an aggressive gunboat diplomacy that needs to be kept in check. In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blasted the EU’s attempts to block Turkey as “banditry” and refused to back down.
The U.S. too has entered the fray: It is seeking to counter Turkey’s expansionist moves in the region, support American energy companies working in the Mediterranean waters and develop new gas sources to weaken Russia’s grip on gas supplies.
In December, the U.S. Congress included provisions in a massive spending bill that puts the U.S. squarely in the middle of the gas bonanza and regional disputes. The provisions include lifting an arms embargo on Cyprus put in place in 1987 to ease tensions on the island; funneling military aid to Cyprus; building a U.S. energy center in the region and supporting the plan to build a pipeline between the eastern Mediterranean and Italy via Crete and mainland Greece. U.S. energy giants ExxonMobil and Noble Energy are involved in drilling operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
Israel, meanwhile, is turning into a pivotal player in this push for gas in the eastern Mediterranean and becoming something it hasn’t been before: A player in the Middle East’s disastrous fossil fuel politics.
Peretz, the environmental activist, said Israel sees the gas in the Mediterranean as an opportunity to become “part of a global game” over energy and a new source of wealth. In a twist for the Middle East, gas from offshore Israel is now being shipped to Jordan and Egypt.
The Israeli government argues its Mediterranean gas can be a force for good – and even build peace – in a region riven by conflict by helping Israel build better relations with its neighbors.
“It depends on who you talk to,” Hadjistassou said. “The Cypriots and Israelis talk about gas being a ‘source for peace’; but if you talk to the Palestinians, they say the opposite; if you talk to the Turks, they will say it is a source of friction.”
There are moderately sized gas reserves off the shores of the Gaza Strip that Palestinian authorities would like to see developed but they can’t because Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a militant organization fighting Israel. In recent days, this long-running conflict has flared up with Hamas and Israeli forces unleashing attacks.
Peretz said the Israeli government’s argument that gas development can foster peace is bogus.
“They talk about the EastMed pipeline and generally all these major projects and all the good they will bring; how it will help the geopolitics between us; and bring peace in the Middle East, and blah blah blah – but it’s actually doing the direct opposite,” she said.
Other countries, in particular Syria, may also enter into the fray, complicating matters even more. Before civil war erupted in Syria, Damascus had shown an interest in expanding into the Mediterranean and it may do so again by encouraging Russian companies to explore for gas in its offshore waters. Syria could also play a disruptive role in projects to pump gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Turkey.
Peretz said the push to develop gas isn’t helping ordinary people in the Middle East and certainly worsening global warming by ensuring more burning of fossil fuels.
Protests are taking place against the development of a gas industry in Israel, but the government is dismissing environmental concerns by arguing that natural gas is a clean fuel that will reduce air pollution, she said. Disregarding concerns over global warming, Israel is planning to increase its use of gas for electricity production, she said. But she said such a strategy hurts efforts to increase renewable energy sources in Israel, a sun-drenched country that she said could easily do a lot more to harness solar energy.
“They don’t speak about [greenhouse gas] emissions because they try to get the public to think there will be less air pollution if we use gas – so it’s ok,” Peretz said. “Israel is part of worsening the climate crisis, and not helping the global effort.”
She also blasted the EU as hypocritical for pushing the EastMed gas pipeline because the project undermines Europe’s lofty rhetoric about ending the era of fossil fuels and politically damages Europe because its support for the pipeline is seen as tacitly accepting Israel’s harsh actions against Palestinians.
“It is not just a pipeline,” she said. “It’s a symbol of who Europe supports. The fact that the EU is giving money to promoting this type of project is basically legitimizing the occupation and annexation of Palestinian territories.”
The EU has approved spending $43.4 million on technical studies for the pipeline. The European Commission did not reply to a message from Courthouse News seeking details about its financial support for the pipeline. The EU sees gas from the eastern Mediterranean as a strategically important alternative to Russian gas. The EU gets about 39% of its gas from Russia and weakens the EU’s hand against Russia.
It remains far from certain that the EastMed pipeline will ever be constructed due to its hefty price tag and the engineering hurdles of laying a pipeline in such deep waters as those in the Mediterranean. The 810-mile pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean to mainland Greece is estimated to cost between $7 billion and $10 billion.
The pipeline would be placed at a depth of about 1 mile under the sea and be one of the world’s deepest subsea pipelines. It is projected to carry between 8 and 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Europe, which is a relatively small amount considering the EU used about 470 billion cubic meters of gas in 2019. With a fall in gas prices worldwide, many experts doubt the pipeline makes economic sense.
“The consensus is that laying a pipeline – disregarding the geopolitics, just on the fundamentals – from Cyprus to Greece is just phenomenally expensive and just doesn’t work at these prices,” said Julian Bowden, a researcher and gas expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
Bowden called the discoveries offshore from Cyprus “disappointing” after they were initially hailed as major reserves and then downgraded. He said the EastMed pipeline may become economically feasible if the price of gas goes up and bigger gas deposits are found near Cyprus.
Hadjistassou was not so skeptical.
“These are long-term projects,” he said. “Here we are talking about horizons of 10 plus years; so by that time, the landscape is going to change dramatically.”
He pointed to another EU-backed project, a gas pipeline stretching all the way from the Caspian Sea to Italy. That pipeline, also a source of controversy in Europe, is nearly completed.
“At the time, it was something that was unheard of,” he said about transporting gas to Europe all the way from Azerbaijan. “Some of these projects eventually materialize.”
If used properly, Hadjistassou said the gas in the Mediterranean can both help ease frictions in a tense region and help countries move away from coal and oil.
“If the geopolitical issues are contained, if there is no spillover effect and a major hot incident, the use of gas for collective benefit” is possible, he said. In this calculus, he said Turkey needs to be both restrained from drilling in waters it doesn’t possess but also assured a supply of gas.
On the environment, he said natural gas is “the cleanest of the fossil fuels” and viewed “as a transition fuel towards more renewables.”
With countries like India and China far from achieving energy independence, he said gas is growing in importance and will remain a key energy source for at least two decades.
“This gas is going to be needed to contain the heat-trapping gases,” he said. “This is going to be in the benefit of a lot of countries because if gas replaces coal, this is beneficial.”
Environmentalists see gas development in the Mediterranean as wrongheaded on many levels: They say it worsens global warming, endangers the region’s ecosystem, expands the dirty footprint of oil and gas infrastructure and adds a new explosive in a region that’s already a minefield.
Elena Gerebizza, an energy campaigner with Re:Common, an Italian environmental group, said building the EastMed pipeline “will mean the European Union is hugely locked in to fossil fuels.” She blasted EU policymakers.
“Stop making deals with authoritarian regimes just to get new gas imports and pick instead a path that says: ‘No more gas investments for the future,’” she said. “Let’s look at this from a point of view of energy independence and independence from fossils and avoid finding ourselves in situations in which authoritarian regimes are imposing diktats on the European Union.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.